A Burst of Friendly Fire

Second-guessing on the conduct of the campaign has already begun despite early successes

As the U.S. campaign against Osama bin Laden enters its second month, neither the stealthy sheik nor his Taliban protectors have yet to suffer a decisive setback on the battlefield. Meantime, nonstop bombing raids are causing civilian casualties and turning even more of war-scarred Afghanistan into a lunar landscape. The predictable result: Alliance nerves are beginning to fray amid the first signs of doubt about the Bush Administration's conduct of the war.

George W. Bush himself seems immune to the second-guessing. Buoyed by a confident performance under fire and a surge of patriotism, the President is hugely popular. In an Oct. 25-28 CBS News-New York Times poll, he garnered an 87% approval rating, and nearly 90% of Americans backed the war.

Although Bush has soared in stature as he has plunged into his new mission against global terror, it's open season on his War Cabinet. Most skeptics are homing in on what looks like a halting drive to beef up domestic defenses against terrorists. But as the U.S. continues its emphasis on air strikes in Afghanistan, questions are also being raised about American military strategy.

Indeed, the White House now faces a crossfire of criticism spanning both ends of the political spectrum. GOP hawks, such as conservative Arizona Senator John McCain, fret that the State Dept.'s desire for a broad anti-terror coalition is sending the U.S. military into action with one arm tied behind its back. McCain advocates a massive troop deployment to finish a job that antiseptic bombing alone can't accomplish.

Doves, meanwhile, fear a Vietnam-style quagmire. "I'm not sure bombing helps us capture bin Laden [because] it makes it harder to maintain the alliance," says William D. Hartung of the liberal World Policy Institute. "We need more emphasis on diplomacy."

Knees are buckling by coalition members, too. Pakistan and Egypt warn that lengthy bombing will spur radicalism in the Muslim world--though evidence thus far suggests that government crackdowns have suppressed the most violent forms of street protests.

In Europe, the call for a bombing halt has also been taken up by Greens and social liberals, including some members of Britain's Labor Party. The antiwar Left insists that the rising civilian toll renders Bush's mission morally indefensible. For support, protesters point to a new poll by NOP Research Group in London that finds 53% of Britons oppose bombing of military targets in Afghan towns and cities.

This back-bench dissent seems wildly premature at the start of such a complex conflict, particularly since the U.S. has racked up its share of early successes. Among them: creation of a far-flung alliance to pursue terrorists and their financial angels; speedily moving troops and hardware to the outskirts of Afghanistan; and taking out Taliban supply routes and communications facilities. Says Anthony H. Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic & International Studies: "We're seeing good execution of an uncertain plan."

But the Administration has brought some problems on itself. How? By following up the President's initial warnings of a long war with rosy pronouncements about the Taliban's supposedly shaky morale; by letting the CIA take the rap for a bit of Keystone Kops skulduggery that saw Pashtun commander Abdul Haq get killed on a mission inside Afghanistan; and by alternately depicting Northern Alliance rebels as a formidable fighters and not-ready-for-prime-time insurgents.

Then there was a final bit of confusion: State Dept. officials first hinted that the U.S. would cease hostilities during the month-long Ramadan observance. But national security officials worried that the pause, followed by the onset of winter, would sideline bin Laden's pursuers until spring. On Oct. 30, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld insisted operations would proceed.

In fairness to a White House that once thought its fiercest face-off would be against welfare-state liberals, it's never easy shifting gears to a war strategy--especially one that envisions battles both at home and abroad. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that the campaign has been characterized by improvisation and miscues. "Things are proceeding according to plan--but plans are tailored on a daily basis to intelligence coming in," says retired Rear Admiral Stephen H. Baker of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank.

Although distracted by a domestic anthrax attack and the prospect of more terror strikes in the U.S., the White House is slowly shaping a military strategy that fleshes out the President's initial vision of a 21st century conflict. The prospect: years of struggle against terror networks in Afghanistan and other haven countries. What skeptics have seen thus far is just Phase One of the war. Here's an assessment of where the battle stands and where it could go next:

-- Round One. Air strikes have disrupted Taliban communications and wiped out many anti-aircraft missiles, fuel depots, and arms caches. Now, bombers are targeting tanks and front-line troops to prepare for a Northern Alliance offensive. The not-so-good news is that many Taliban fighters are hiding in cities. Meantime, civilian casualties stoke sympathy for the regime. The ill-equipped Northern Alliance, which is still awaiting Russian arms, has been slow to capitalize on the bombing.

-- Mano a Mano. The inability of air power to cleanse the battlefield means that, inevitably, ground forces will be required. Thousands of U.S. and British troops will launch search-and-destroy operations soon. Some attacks could be launched from a base in Khanabad, a site in Uzbekistan. Sources say 60 U.S. helicopters have been ferried in to Khanabad, which is a short hop from Afghanistan's northern border.

The aim is to secure enclaves from which to launch waves of helicopter missions, backed by allied jets providing close-air support. Once an airfield or other critical asset is captured, analysts say, regular troops would come in. But Phase Two will inevitably mean U.S. and British casualties. Moreover, the secure-enclave idea bears an unnerving likeness to Vietnam's "strategic hamlet" plan, which failed miserably in shielding U.S. forces from guerrillas.

-- Winter Soldiers. Hopeful that winter may rule out a big U.S. ground sweep, Taliban fighters will hunker down. The U.S. will try to take advantage of the lull by attacking supply lines and sending B-52s to pound fixed positions. But bombers are not effective against caves--the favored hiding place of the mujahideen. Also, some military experts are doubtful about air power. Says Pentagon tactical-air expert Franklin C. Spinney: "We're waging a standard battle against an adversary who has no infrastructure."

As the allied campaign stretches into next year, strains on the coalition will grow. Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia warn that the establishment of U.S. ground bases and allied moves against cities such as Kabul could cause them to rethink their backing of the war. "The longer bombing goes on, the greater will be the support for Taliban," says Abdul Rahim Hashmi, cousin of fallen Pashtun leader Abdul Haq.

In the end, all of the basing rights, intelligence-sharing deals, money crackdowns, and vows of coalition support cannot change the reality for George Bush: He has been forced to undertake a long and arduous mission--one that could take years to unfold--against a fanatical foe. That means the voices of dissent Bush is hearing now are just whispers compared with the noisy protests that await down the road.

By Lee Walczak, Stan Crock, and Paul Magnusson in Washington, with Frederik Balfour in Islamabad, Susan Postlewaite in Cairo, and bureau reports

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